National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program

U.S. Geological Survey
Water-Resources Investigations Report 02-4289

Nutrients in Shallow Ground Waters Beneath Relatively Undeveloped Areas in the Conterminous United States

By Bernard T. Nolan and Kerie J. Hitt


Nutrient concentrations in shallow (well depth of 30 meters or less) ground waters of relatively undeveloped areas were evaluated to determine background conditions relative to agricultural and urban land uses. Lands comprising 67 percent or greater forest or range, 10 percent or less agricultural land, and 10 percent or less urban land were used to represent relatively undeveloped areas. Data subsets from the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program (81 wells) and retrospective studies (320 wells) yielded 75th percentile nitrate concentrations of 0.51 and 1.1 milligrams per liter, respectively, in shallow ground water beneath relatively undeveloped areas. The value of 1.1 milligrams per liter is a reasonable upper bound estimate of relative background concentration of nitrate in shallow ground waters in the United States and incorporates effects of nominal nitrogen load to susceptible aquifers. Relative background concentration of nitrate is variable and depends in part on land use, rock type, and climate. Median nitrate concentration was significantly greater in ground water beneath rangeland (1.20 milligrams per liter) than beneath forest land (0.06 milligram per liter). Median nitrate concentration in ground water beneath rangeland was 1.4-2.7 milligrams per liter in susceptible aquifers, which consist of coarse-textured deposits or fractured rock. Increased relative background concentration of nitrate in rangeland areas likely results from evaporative concentration of nominal nitrogen load associated with natural organic and inorganic sources in hydrogeologically susceptible settings.

Table of Contents

   Previous Studies
   Purpose and Scope
Study Methods
Nutrient Concentrations in Ground Water
Land Use in Relatively Undeveloped Areas
Relative Background Concentrations of Nutrients in Ground Water
Variability of Relative Background Concentration of Nitrate in Ground Water

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